the rotarian magazine

Cars ♥ L.A.

Los Angeles epitomizes many of the urban issues we face today. One, a very visible definition of its existence is car traffic. How did it come to be that way? How did a city become so dependent on cars? Here are some excerpts from Los Angeles: The City That Automobiles Rebuilt by architect J. Robert Harris, published in the Rotarian, February 1950. I think the story explains in part the modernist mindset behind the city, and how the automobile was really seen as an integral part of actually planning the urban environment (so vital, that highways were regularly described as city’s arteries). On one hand, the absolute reliance on cars was extremely forward-thinking. In fact, it was seen as the kind of contemporary planning that even attracted creative people of wide note to the city. On the other hand, the selective blindness for facing also problems with unlimited growth of automobile infrastructure, remains puzzling:

Los Angeles’ answer to the question of how to live most successfully with this convenient machine has taken the form of gradual decentralization of business from the old downtown business district to the open areas in the environs of our city. Begun in the ‘30s, retarded by the war, but now in full momentum again, this exodus to the suburbs will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for new merchandising facilities and more millions in public expenditure for wide traffic arteries, new streets, and other facilities which the conversion will necessitate. Out of it, we expect, will come more business and better living.

The following chapters describe the juxtaposition between the discomforts of downtown area and the new pleasurable shopping environments. Planning-wise, it kind of underlines the belief in separating the very functions that constitute a city, and not only as a physical entity:

…An outstanding example of this new type merchandising synchronized to the automobile is Bullock’s Pasadena department store, recently opened in an undeveloped area a mile south of the established shopping center. An innovation in contemporary planning, the beautiful building incorporates entirely new arrangements in display and facilties.

Approaching the store by automobile, one drives into spacious parking grounds. Leaving his car, he walks through beautifully landscaped gardens and along terraces flanked by comfortable seats and tables, and enters one of several doors, all of which lead to the central carpeted concourse from which all departments radiate. On the upper floor a tea room commands an exquisite view of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Everywhere are exquisite color schemes, carpeted floors and comfortable furniture to provide perfect relaxation while shopping.

Contrast this with the ordeal of yesterday which meant a long drive downtown, a search for a block to park the car, a several-block walk to the store, standing long hours on hard floors, looking vainly for a place to rest, the walk back to the car with arms laden, and the long drive home through heavy afternoon traffic.

Although traffic jams were an acknowledged problem, they were believed to be caused mostly by insufficient capacity or lack of speed differentiated freeways. To address the problem, more freeways were planned, according to the principles laid down by the utopian visions of Bel Geddes and Hugh Ferris, two decades earlier:

…We are using wide, divided, high-speed freeways that are depressed to avoid street intersections, and that criss-cross the city through or near the downtown business area. These relieve traffic congestion even in peak periods. There are now five in Los Angeles County. In a contemplated ten-year program 165 miles of these high-speed freeways will be built.

…It is the automobile that makes possible a city like Los Angeles—a family of lesser communities each with room to grow and all bound together with bonds of concrete and asphalt that flow through the miles of trees and flowers.

Looking at things from this day and age (the modernist future!), we find many viewpoints that contradict our present thinking, but also many that have not changed. Yet, these are the ideologies that have contributed so heavily to the modern urbanity we find around us today. Cars and highways have not sprung from nowhere, but from decades of programmed capacity-building. Carpeted shopping malls are not only business developments but, also constructs of the modern society’s search for comfortable life, sometimes even endorsed by studies and expert opinions. Today, I think the question is, whether we can recognise the scenarios created by our current aims, and whether, we can also allow the unforseen to take place.

(all pictures from Google Maps 45°)